A Dinner in Havana / 14ymedio, Jose Andres

Chef José Andrés with "Hemingway" at El Floridita in Havana (Photo: José Andrés)
Chef José Andrés with “Hemingway” at El Floridita in Havana (Photo: José Andrés)

14ymedio, Jose Andres, Washington, 17 April 2016 — I was smiling. My sunglasses were lying beside the book on the bar. I turned around, as if I were coming back to reality, when I felt a hand on my back. I had just finished my sixth daiquiri in less than half an hour. The waiters serve them faster than you can drink them. Even so, I was not going to return to reality. I was just another tourist vying for a highly sought-after picture with Ernest Hemingway. I was a trophy hunter, trying to take a selfie, set on getting close to his statue in the corner of El Floridita bar.

El Floridita is a nearly 200-year-old institution of colonial Havana. I felt more excited there than usual. I could hear the music of my anxiety fill the air; the type of music Steinbeck talks about in The Pearl, that describes situations that words cannot. continue reading

El Floridita is now a tourist attraction. Still, I was delighted to enjoy the same setting that Hemingway did seventy or eighty years ago. The bar was full. Live salsa music filled the air. A few tourists, who did not have even one drop of rhythm flowing through their veins, were in denial about their dancing. Silly people. Decadence. What I really could not understand was how people could line up at the bar drinking daiquiris with a straw. A straw? Could you imagine Hemingway ever using a straw to drink a daiquiri? Never.

I raised my hand. Fidel, the bartender, was more than willing to please me with my seventh daiquiri. I took the straw out and asked him to add a little of the best rum they had. Fidel then poured a beautiful dark brown molasses-smelling liquid on my pale frozen citric daiquiri. I carefully lifted the glass to my lips and took a sip. That is how you are supposed to drink a daiquiri at El Floridita.

El Floridita’s chef finally arrived with a plastic bag. I had asked him to sell me some Brie, blue cheese, and a bottle of virgin olive oil. These ingredients are not easy to come by in Havana, so therefore, it was best if I asked a cook. But he has brought me something more than I expected. When I looked in the bag, I saw lobster tails. I then took another drag from my Cohiba Behique cigar. It was my fourth cigar that day, and it was only 6:00 PM.

I smoked three more cigars at the baseball game. Cuba and the United States were becoming friends through sport. It was a historic moment, a great moment. Perhaps this signals a change in the lives of many people. The joy was so intense that you could feel it.

I again glanced at the lobsters, and then took a sip of my daiquiri. Yoani Sánchez, my accomplice and host for that evening’s dinner, had asked me not to bring anything. She said: “It’s better that way.” What did she mean by that? During the last four days I had been trying to reach her. In the best of cases, Wi-Fi in Havana is spotty. When they do work, communication devices are very slow. That is why two days earlier I ventured late at night to her apartment in a fourteen-story concrete high-rise in the far off the tourist track Nuevo Vedado neighborhood. I decided to try my luck. It was 11:00 PM, and the street was dark. It was a fourteen-story building. I had no luck because no one opened the front door. After thirty minutes, no one came in or out. Since I was not able to call Yoani, I had no access to the elevator that would take me to her home and office. So I left.

Yet today was different. Now I had an invitation and a specific time I should be there. I grabbed the two plastic bags, the cheeses, the olive oil, and the lobster, and stored it all in my black backpack. I sipped my last daiquiri, and kissed my cigar goodbye.

I got in a taxi. I thought it best not to call any attention, so I wore the Cuban national baseball team t-shirt, with its beautiful shade of blue. I was also wearing a baseball cap. When we finally got to Yoani’s street, I told the driver to let me off where it starts off. “I’m going by foot,” I said. I wanted to walk. I wanted to get there on my own. But I did ask him to wait for me. Yet for how long? Maybe thirty minutes or a few hours, since I was not sure. I left a bag of t-shirts I bought for my daughters with him. That is how trust works: when you show it, it is reciprocated.

Protruding overgrown tree roots have cracked the sidewalks over the years. This is a good indicator of who is in charge of things. I twisted my ankle. I felt the pain for a second, but the excitement served as a good antidote. I suppose the daiquiris helped too.

At last, I arrived. I saw a man heading towards the door, and I followed him in and entered the elevator. I was going to the fourteenth floor, but there were only thirteen numbers. I did not want to ask why. I wanted to appear as if I were from there, especially after hearing so many stories about the police, informants, and dissidents thrown in jail.

My host Yoani is an independent journalist. She is renowned for her ability to use technology to let the world know what is happening in Cuba. Once I was on the thirteenth floor, I saw a narrow staircase leading to the fourteenth. Wonderful! The fourteenth floor did indeed exist. I reached a locked metal door, and rang the bell. A man came out and asked: “Are you José?” Was that the password? I said I was. Although we had never met, he opened the door, and gave me a bear hug, as if I were a long-lost friend.

I finally entered the apartment. Yoani was there, and all of her staff broke out in applause. I had met Yoani only a year earlier in Washington, D.C. Her stories about Cuba, her fight for freedom, and the difficulties that Cubans have to endure everyday in order to survive all resonated in my mind. I had promised to visit her someday, and I was finally there. Yet I was not in an apartment. It looked more like a newsroom.

I did not understand why all the applause. Perhaps it was due to the pictures I had sent Yoani from Obama’s entourage, since I had been invited on the trip as an official culinary ambassador. Or maybe it was the photos of business leaders with Obama, among others, that I had also sent her. These pictures were not sent directly to Yoani. Instead, they were forwarded to Miami, and somehow, they made it back to Cuba. I was counting on the idea that dining at Yoani’s during Obama’s visit would give me a different perspective on these events. Still, I felt like I was just visiting an old friend.

Yoani and her team kept moving in and out. The air smelled of baked chicken and oregano coming from three small chickens in the oven. The seemingly endless conversation went from one topic to another, from family matters to paladares, from Obama to beer, to ice… I prepared a soup of oats, Brie, chicken stock, and powdered chicken soup. Yoani explained that Cubans like big portions. They are hungry and stressed. So whenever they can, Cubans like to feast.

Yoani had just finished making a waffle in an electric waffle iron. Since it is such a small kitchen, creativity is a necessity. Still, a waffle at 8:00 PM? So I asked “Why not bread?” The staff replied: “There’s no time for bread. We’re too busy.” This was true, since Yoani had just interviewed Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security advisor. It had been a very important day for her. She had gone from dissident to being in the presence of a man very close to the President. Yoani told me that she had even dared to ask Obama for an interview. “If you don’t dream, you don’t accomplish anything,” she said.

The 14ymedio staff was indeed hungry. They devoured the Brie and Blue Stilton cheeses I placed on the table.

There were only two waffles. I dressed them with margarine, the blue cheese that was left over, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I used the salt Yoani brought back from her last trip to Washington. She is proud of all the spices she has. Not all Cuban households are that lucky.

The pizza waffle was just too small, and we had no flour or eggs to make more batter. Still, the team seemed to like what we had. In Cuba we like big portions, José. But there was not much more I could do. There was only one Jesus Christ.

The chicken was ready. I cut it up in small portions, and sprinkled it with oregano and its cooking juices, and I brought it to the table. Everyone in the room was smoking, drinking rum and beer, and chatting.

Next, I served a dish made from the lobster I had brought with me. I used the part of the tails closest to the lobster head. I dressed it lightly with olive oil, chopped lettuce, and vinegar. I was lucky. The 14ymedio team thought they had nothing to cook, but I am a kitchen survivor. I learned how to work with a small kitchen on a ship of the Royal Spanish Navy, without gas, without ingredients… We cooks are like Jesus Christ. We can multiply anything.

It was time to put the frying pan with the leftover grease in the sink. However, the chicken juice and the burnt skin stuck to the bottom were ingredients that had to be saved. I relit the stove, added a glass of rum, and scraped the bottom of the pan. I added the tomato paste that was guarded as if it were a consecrated communion host. I added water and I let it boil. There was a little chicken broth left. I added the water left over from the lobster ceviche. A pinch of garlic. The pasta was ready. Half an hour earlier, I had been frying spaghetti in the pan. If one is not careful, it tends to burn. The stove seemed to give off a live flame, under control, and well mannered; a soft flame, like a whisper. As I toasted the pasta, Yoani told me about an article on Obama’s arrival in Cuba. Since it was a rainy day, he exited Air Force One holding his own umbrella, as he sheltered himself as well as Michelle from the rain. This is in marked contrast to Cuban government officials, who have others hold their umbrellas for them. This is another example of what freedom is like.

My dish was ready, or so I thought. I assumed it was the worse one I had ever made.

I put the toasted pasta and the small lobster medallions in the oven so the top part would be crunchy. If anyone saw me do this in Catalonia or Valencia, I would end up in jail. Nevertheless, on that long, messy table, full of dishes holding chicken, glasses of rum, and beer cans, we made room for the platter.

It was well received. We talked about how Cubans can end up in jail if they are caught with lobsters. Lobster trawlers are not allowed so that no one can escape the island. They would be too much of a temptation. The diners ate everything on their dishes. My cook’s ego was saved. This time, no one mocked me with that same old mantra, “Cubans like big portions, José.”

Yet the evening was not over. Yoani enjoys the drink I made for her last year in Washington. Called “cremat,” its ingredients are coffee grains, cinnamon, lemon peels, and rum that has been lit on fire. However, there were no lemons or limes, an oddity in a climate perfectly suited for citrus fruits. I suddenly felt guilty when I thought about how many limes were used for my daiquiris. So then I went on to narrate the story of the Catalonian sailors who returned home after the war between Spain and the United States in Cuba, and other places.

Spain may have lost the war, however, special drinks and traditions were created because of it. I started singing a Habanera, which in Catalan goes “El meu avi se’n va anar a Cuba…” (“My grandfather went off to Cuba…”). And by the light of the burning rum, we all sang together.

Editorial note: In 2011, the James Beard Foundation named José Andrés the nation’s most outstanding chef. Time Magazine has called him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. Mr. Andrés is a globally recognized culinary expert.

Translated by José Badué.

Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart Detained on Leaving His Home in Villa Clara / 14ymedio

On Sunday, Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart Was Detained As He Tried Leaving His Home (Photo 14ymedio)
On Sunday, Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart Was Detained As He Tried Leaving His Home (Photo 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 20 March 2016 — Mario Félix Lleonart, a Baptist minister, was detained on Sunday as he attempted to leave his home in the town of Taguayabón, Villa Clara Province. A strong police presence had surrounded his home since Saturday. According to Lleonart’s wife, Yoaxis Marcheco, he was forced into a police car the moment he stepped outside his house.

A few hours before his arrest, Pastor Lleonart sent a statement to this newspaper’s editorial board. In it, he denounces the harassment to which he was being subjected. Here below we publish excerpts of his account. continue reading

The Cuba Barack Obama Will Find

By Félix Mario Lleonart, Taguaybón

The excitement of the past few days has given way to all types of news reports about Cuba. Apart from the ceaseless and flagrant violations of human rights that those of us on the island must endure, we are also aware that Cubans living abroad are having their rights violated as well.

It is no secret that the Communist Party is conducting an all out mobilization of its members in order to fill the Latin American Stadium for the baseball game between the Cuban National team and the Tampa Bay Rays. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is expected to attend.

While this mobilization is under way, many people are being pressured to not even leave their homes. Moreover, genuine aficionados of our national sport, who always claim “not to care about politics,” because they are “just sports fans,” this time around are being forced to “sit out the game.”

We have also learned that (Cuban-American) Ana Lupe Bustos has been banned from entering Cuba as a reprisal for her work with the Ladies in White. This stands in complete contrast to an experience I had when I came across an émigré while walking around my hometown. When I greeted him, his response was akin to an act of repudiation. This man, who had been president of his Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, was still a genuine CDR supporter, regardless of the fact that he had left the country.

Furthermore, as of Saturday afternoon, numerous State Security and National Revolutionary Police agents have surrounded a property belonging to the Association of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, where my wife and I serve as pastors, and where our daughters live, is located on said property.

For weeks now we have been warned that we would be kept from moving around freely during Obama’s visit to Cuba. These warnings are now being put into effect. As declared by the United Nations, today is the International Day of Happiness, coinciding with Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week observances. I will probably be arrested, although I have no plans of going to Havana.

Translated by José Badué

Cuban Musicians Are Freeing Themselves / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)
JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 12 January 2016 – In an apartment located in a dingy, rundown concrete building of Havana’s Plaza district, dozens of musicians have made the dream of recording their songs come true. Here we find one of those “home studios” that are becoming essential for the Cuban music scene, and especially for the online market.

A couple of years ago, nineteen year-old Claudia Pérez chose a new more “intriguing” name befitting a “grand diva,” Nina. However, her vocal and performance talents will not get her very far without the backing of a musical expert and an independent producer.

JouMP, a music producer and editor, owns the studio where Nina recorded her first singles. It is composed of a single room with wood paneling, pompously advertising itself as “Espacio Latino Records.” JouMP spends hours in his studio, insulated from street noise, mixing musical effects and composing songs. continue reading

“The only thing I need to do is find the right musical thread, and then the right instrument that defines the piece’s esthetic,” remarked JouMP. He added, “Right from the start I know how to identify songs that are sure to be hits.” This is why he is so respected, and why so many entrust him with recording their albums, songs, or creating background melodies for them.

JouMP has been involved in the world of independent creativity for more than a decade, and considers himself “a sound artisan.” His most prized possession is an external hard drive storing more than four thousand musical pieces encompassing several genres, all created by him.

Stored together with his compositions are sound editing programs such as Fruity Loops, Wavelab, and Logic Pro, as well as dozens of recording tools. The majority of these programs are pirated versions, purchased on the black market.

The apple of JouMP’s eyes is his digital console, which along with his monitors, his computer with a powerful soundcard, and his microphones, gives the studio a professional look. This equipment was also acquired outside of official State channels, purchased second-hand, or from those travelling abroad who are asked to bring it back to Cuba with them.

The lack of copyright laws and official authorization give a clandestine feeling to these ventures. Still, this does not discourage those who jump at the opportunity of turning their bedrooms into “sound factories.” For the most part, the reggaetón played in shared taxis and on teenagers’ earphones are recorded in these types of alternative studios. The most common way of promoting this music on the Cuban market is by way of the “weekly packet.”

JouMP bragged about creating an arrangement for rapper Wilder 01 by mixing cha-cha with an electric guitar, thus giving it a “crunch” sound. He called the piece “Estar contigo” (“Being With You”), and offered it to EGREM. This State-run music label hailed the song’s originality, and recognized that it did contain “some traces of Cuban music.” Nonetheless, it was “too foreign.”

Those times when membership in a (government-run/official/State) organization was a prerequisite for recording an album are now in the past. “Privately owned studios give you more freedom,” commented Dj Xon, an eighteen year-old who performs at parties, and who also dreams of compiling all his work and uploading it to iTunes.

Until now, the only option available for the majority of Cuban musicians who wanted to post their music online was Bis Musica, a label owned by the State-owned corporation Artex. Bis Musica is in charge of uploading music to platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon. It often also acts as an agent, retaining up to fifty percent of a song’s royalties.

Some artists manage to upload their songs onto the Internet thanks to a friend or relative abroad who also helps them secure their royalties. Despite the difficulty of accessing the Internet or collecting royalties in Cuba, iTunes offers a wide variety of music produced by Cubans living on the island.

In their short years, JouMP, Nina, and Wilder 01 have witnessed a giant technological and social leap forward. They have seen the industry go from old vinyl records, whose production was under total State control, to the new wave of independent studios where songs are not even burned to CD’s anymore, but instead are being produced for online streaming.

“They’ll be able to hear me anywhere in the world, because I’ll be up there,” commented Nina. While singing in that narrow studio with wood paneling, she daydreams about “the cloud,” and the enormous potential her voice could have online.

Translated by José Badué

“The Family Unit in Holguín Is Very Damaged” / 14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa

Marcos Pirán Gómez, parish priest of San José Church in Holguín
Marcos Pirán Gómez, parish priest of San José Church in Holguín (Photo Fernando Donate/14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguín. 21 September 2015 — He shares both his faith and Argentine citizenship with Pope Francis, yet Father Marcos Pirán Gómez is not on Cuban soil for just a few days. He has been living on the island for fifteen years, and since 2012 has been the parish priest of San José (Saint Joseph’s) Church in Holguín.

A few hours before the Bishop of Rome travelled to this land of mountains, heat, and seas, Father Marcos met with 14ymedio to discuss his parishioners’ expectations, the difficulties besetting his community, and the role of the Church in finding solutions.

14ymedio: What did you feel when you heard that Pope Francis was coming to Holguín?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: I felt an enormous thrill because of the joy another Papal visit would mean to our people; the third one in just 17 years, such a short period of time. This is a significant event not only for the life of the Church, but also for the Cuban people. Each one of the previous Papal visits have left its mark. continue reading

Pope Francis is an exemplary and admirable person for the way he thinks, for what he does, and for his beliefs, which are consistent with how he lived in Argentina. I remember what he was able to generate around him, especially in Buenos Aires where we were neighbors living in the same area, and where we had more contact with each other. I know a lot of things from back then that are now known in the public square.

14ymedio: How will this Papal visit to the island be different?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: This third visit is also linked to the resumption of talks between the Cuban and American governments. This time stands out because it hopes to keep alive the first step taken on December 17th of last year.

Pope Francis has closely followed the history of the Cuban people. He wrote a book about John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, which undeniably signaled a before and after. It not only did so as far as the relationship between the Church and the Cuban government is concerned, but the relationship between religion and the government as well.

14ymedio: Is there special interest for Cuba in the Vatican?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Interest and worry for these people. Cuba has undergone a political and social experiment unlike that experienced by most of Latin America’s people. It’s different in the fact that Communist ideology takes precedence in Cuba, so theres a very different attitude towards religion here than in most other countries.

Starting with John Paul’s visit, an effort was made to initiate a new type of relationship (between the Church and the State) in which there would be an official recognition of the of religiosity of individuals and of our people as a whole.

14ymedio: What do believers in Holguín expect from this visit?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: On the one hand, the people of Holguín hope this visit will help them regain their enthusiasm and hope. There’re many people who due to different difficulties, such as the frustrations of life, the breakdown of families, the scarcities, have lost their will to forge ahead. The Pope can help reverse this because his message aims to break apathy and indifference.

14ymedio: Do you sense a lot of apathy?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Yes. People are apathetic because of their incapacity to react to situations they don’t agree with. When an individual stops demanding or voicing his concerns, whether it is out of fear or because he thinks it would be useless, that is worrisome, because it shows an attitude of apathy and indifference. I hope, and many others do as well, that the presence of Pope Francis will help bring about a reawakening.

14ymedio: So you are excited about the visit?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Very excited. I’ve been especially impressed by people who don’t practice any religion but who see the (Papal) visit as a very positive thing. People are hopeful this visit will bring something that’ll make them better persons.

14ymedio: The authorities have conceded that violence, drug addiction, suicide, and other social ills have increased in Holguín. Is there a spiritual crisis in Holguín?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: The family unit in Holguín is very damaged and divided. There’re a lot of difficult situations, and that affects the social order.

Family units are fragmented because of financial difficulties, and because a lot of people emigrate, and that brings suffering. People don’t know how to discuses issues, how to accept one another, how to collaborate, or how to promote solidarity within the family setting. When this starts happening to the family unit, it resonates throughout society at large, while adding to the already existing personal crises in each individual’s life.

14ymedio: The Cuban government pardoned 3,522 before the Pope’s arrival. What can you say about this?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Some have reacted happily, while others were disappointed because they thought they met all the conditions for a pardon but weren’t. The announcement (of the prisoner release) states that those convicted of “crimes against State security” would remain incarcerated. That’s why in this case it is a matter of opinion if those still being held are political prisoners or not.

14ymedio: Are there political prisoners in Cuba?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: This isn’t conjecture. The government itself has admitted there are political prisoners. Several years back, the President mentioned them. I don’t know how many there are, because there’s a lot of information I don’t know or have any access to. That’s why I can’t say for certain how many political prisoners there are, or where they are.

14ymedio: Has the Church in Holguín, or you, received a request from the opposition to meet with Pope Francis?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Up until now, that hasn’t happened. However, we have received letters from people directed to the Pope, asking him to intercede in support of freedom for their relatives serving prison sentences. Still, I don’t know if these cases are political prisoners.

14ymedio: Has the relationship between the Church and the State in Cuba been strengthened?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: The preparations for the Pope’s visit have opened the way for some dialog. Catholics in the Papal visit’s organizing committee note there have been important changes when compared to eighteen years ago while preparing for John Paul II’s visit.

Also, for some time now we have been noticing that the government has somewhat stopped pressuring mission houses or small (parish) communities from opening. Today, these houses do exist, but there was a time when the government wouldn’t allow people to gather in homes to celebrate the Word, to pray together, or to exchange ideas. The result of this is an increase in the social ills we’re now facing. When you keep something from growing over a long period of time, that has negative repercussions.

14ymedio: The Catholic Church in Cuba does not have at its disposal a radio station or a television channel. Doesn’t that limit your pastoral work?

Marcos Pirán Gómez: Nowadays, having access to the media is very important. I don’t like things that are just Catholic. I’d like more diversity in the Cuban media. I don’t need to have my own radio station, TV channel, or newspaper, because that in itself is exclusionary. I’m not interested in that way of thinking. What I do wish is that there be space for other voices, other ways of thinking, and other messages that contribute to the common good, within the media that already exists.

Translated by José Badué

Francis, the Man Who Came With the Rain / 14ymedio, Rolando Garcia

Pope Francis before the Virgin of Charity. (YouTube)
Pope Francis before the Virgin of Charity. (YouTube)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rolando M. García, Santiago de Cuba, 22 September 2015 – Jorge Mario Bergolgio’s trip through Santiago de Cuba has left many of the faithful frustrated as they were not able to hear his homily in a public square, as had happened in Havana and Holguín. The Pope’s visit to this region consisted only of a Mass for invited guests at the Sanctuary of El Cobre, and a gathering at Santiago de Cuba’s cathedral on Tuesday, but without a massive public presence. About 1,100 people, including Raúl Castro, attended the Mass in the Basilica, while another two thousand followed it on the giant screens outside.

The eleven miles separating El Cobre and the provincial capital of Santiago de Cuba were teeming with security guards, vehicles, and the faithful invited to hear the homily during the early morning hours on Tuesday. Many of these arrived at El Cobre in the early hours after midnight in order to avoid possible transportation problems. continue reading

Vendors who typically situate themselves on the sides of the road selling wooden replicas of the Virgin of Charity, flowers, and stones with specks of copper,* were not allowed to open their stalls last Tuesday. In their place, some of the local faithful lined the road to greet the Pope as he departed the Sanctuary in direction of the city.

It had been almost two weeks since it last rained in Santiago de Cuba. The last time it did so it came down as a weak and unimpressive drizzle. It was very different than the rain that greeted Pope Francis upon his arrival to the city. The people of Santiago de Cuba, who are in so much need of hope, saw this downpour as a good omen. Still, a lot more than rain is needed for a miracle to happen in these parts.

Restorations in honor of the 500th anniversary of Santiago de Cuba – celebrated last July – are still fresh. Consequently, the Bishop of Rome found an embellished city center, and a thoroughly restored cathedral. Work took two years, and included the renovation of the interior, the two bell towers, the parish house, and façades.

During the last few weeks the preparations for the Pope’s arrival have gone beyond the Catholic community, involving government, Communist party, and provincial agencies, as well as the security services. The latter were in charge of warning activists and troublemakers that they were not allowed to approach the places the Pontiff would be visiting.

Santiago de Cuba’s homeless and beggars were also hidden away until Pope Francis concluded his visit to the city, “ although he has said we are all children of God,” sarcastically remarked Pablo, a homeless 65-year-old retiree, who spends his nights in the area around Céspedes Park, Santiago de Cuba’s main square, where the city’s cathedral is located. Near the bus station he told us, “I’m in hiding these days because I don’t want to get picked up.”

José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the Patriotoc Union of Cuba (UNPACU), reported to this newspaper that hours before the arrival of Francis, the detention of around fifty activists, and that “service had been cut off to many cellphones.” For this dissident it seemed inconceivable that the Pope has not until now said “not even one word in support of human rights.” Still, Ferrer is certain that dissidents will change “Cuba for the good of all Cubans, with or without the Church’s support.”

Others see the Papal visit as great business opportunity. Margot lives close to the centrally located Enramadas Street, and applied two years ago for a government license allowing her to rent rooms to foreigners, but is still waiting for it. She told us: “A lot of tourists have come for this day, and it’s hard to find vacancies.”

“I wish a pope could come here every week,” Margot added with a big smile. “Santiago de Cuba has to reclaim the attention it deserves. Francis will help us in that. So will Cachita** who’s already here with us.”

Translator’s Notes:
*The Basilica/Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity is located in a former mining town called “El Cobre,” literally, “The Copper.” Cuban Catholics value copper fragments from the local mines because of the metal’s historical link to the Virgin of Charity. 
**An affectionate nickname for anyone named “Caridad,” or “Charity,” including the Virgin of Charity herself.

State Security Stops Martha Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva From Meeting with the Pope / EFE-14ymedio

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. (14ymedio)
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerEFE/14ymedio, Havana. 20 September 2015 — Opposition member Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello reported that on Sunday afternoon State Security stopped her – for the second day in a row – from personally greeting Pope Francis. Their meeting, which was to have taken place in Havana Cathedral, had been agreed upon as a way redressing what happened on Sunday to this former Black Spring prisoner who was detained as she was on her way to the Apostolic Nunciature. continue reading

On Sunday morning, the secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Cuba had assured Ms. Roque Cabello that he was surprised by the previous day’s arrest, but that everything was now in order for her to greet the Pope that same day. However, the taxi taking her to Havana’s historic center was intercepted on its way by a car with four State Security agents who did not allow her to reach the place, the activist said.

“If you have something to say to the Pope, tell us, and we’ll tell him,” Roque Cabello said one of the State Security agents told her. The dissident was held for fifteen hours at a police station before being released.

In the case of Miriam Leiva, her detention unfolded under similar circumstances, as she was traveling in a shared taxi. “The car was forcefully intercepted by State Security. They took me to a police station, and there an official warned me that I could not participate in any activity related to the Pope’s visit,” Leiva reported to the EFE news agency.

On the way to Havana Cathedral, where Francis celebrated Sunday vespers with priests, men and women consecrated to religious life, and seminarians, the Papal entourage stopped at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Ignatius Loyola on Reina Street.* The Pope took a brief tour of the interior of the church, and then continued on his way to the historic center of Havana.

*Translator’s Note: Commonly called “Iglesia de Reina,” “Church of Reina (Queen [Street]),” and consecrated in 1923, it is widely considered one of Cuba’s most beautiful churches, and its tallest, with a fifteen-story bell tower. It is the mother church of the Jesuit Order in Cuba.

El Cobre Prepares to Welcome Pope Francis / 14ymedio

Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. (Flickr)
Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. (Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Santiago de Cuba, 18 September 2015 – The place where Cachita* — as we fondly call our patron saint — receives her devotees has seen busy days before the arrival of Pope Francis. In the Basilica of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, located in Santiago de Cuba Province, the details for the the Bishop of Rome’s September 22 Mass are ready. At this moment, the eleven miles separating El Cobre from the provincial capital are a constant back and forth of people and vehicles.

During a press conference on September 15, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba Dionisio García Ibáñez explained that the Papal entourage will be landing at Antonio Maceo International Airport in the afternoon of September 21, and then immediately head for El Cobre. continue reading

On this occasion, repairs to the Basilica of The Virgin of Charity have been primarily focused on the façade, the interior décor, and the garden areas. The building was totally restored in 2012 for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island, as well as to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Patroness of Cuba.

The very popular Chapel of Miracles, previously full of offerings for the fulfillment of some promise made to the Virgin, was returned to its original function as a sacristy in 2012. The impressive gifts people have left for Cachita were moved to two side chapels that had been previously closed.

According to Catholic Church officials, after arriving in the afternoon in Santiago de Cuba, “he (Francis) will meet with Cuban bishops, and visit the sanctuary.” Once there, the Pope will offer a gift to the Virgin of Charity, and light a candle with the flame of a candle lit by Benedict XVI during his visit to the Basilica.

As did the previous pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio will spend the night at the priests’ residence hall adjacent to the chapel.

Opened on September 8, 1927, the Basilica now exhibits reconditioned woodwork with the shrine to the Virgin renovated so that the faithful can see it up closer. The surrounding buildings, such as the retreat and fellowship house and the guesthouse are in wonderful shape, although they were built over sixty years ago. However, the power, water and sewer systems have not been modernized.

Francis will offer a Mass at the El Cobre shrine attended by the residents of the small rural communities where there are no churches, according to the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba. García Ibáñez also said that two children will present the Pope with a copy of the manuscript made by the veterans of the war of independence asking that the Virgin of Charity be made the Patron Saint of Cuba.**

After the conclusion of the Mass in El Cobre, the Pope will go to Santiago de Cuba’s cathedral, where representatives of families from throughout the country will be waiting for him. After blessing the city on its 500th anniversary, Francis will leave for the airport, thus ending his visit to the island.

Translator’s Notes:
*An affectionate nickname for anyone named “Caridad,” or “Charity,” including Our Lady of Charity herself.
**The petition was made to Pope Benedict XV in 1915, and it was approved the following year.

Translated by José Badué

Pope Francis Visits Fidel Castro in His Havana Home / EFE – 14ymedio

Pope Francis during his meeting with former Cuban president Fidel Castro. (Alex Castro)
Pope Francis during his meeting with former Cuban president Fidel Castro. (Alex Castro)

EFE, 14ymedio, Havana, 20 September 2105 — According to an announcement made by the Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis met today with former president Fidel Castro at his Havana home.

The meeting took place after the Pontiff celebrated mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. According to Lombardi, the meeting lasted approximately forty minutes, taking place in a “very family-like and informal” setting.

The Apostolic Nuncio Giorgio Lingua accompanied Francis during his visit with the Cuban leader. Fidel Castro’s wife, children, and grandchildren–approximately ten people in total–were also present. continue reading

Lombardi explained that the Argentine pontiff and Castro discussed “current global problems,” especially those related to the environment.

The Vatican spokesperson said that Fidel Castro took the opportunity to ask Francis about “important issues in today’s world” that concern and interest the former Cuban president.

Apart from their conversation, Francis and Fidel Castro exchanged gifts. Specifically, the Pontiff gave Castro two books by Alessandro Pronzato, an expert in catechism, scripture, and a renowned theologian. One of the books is entitled “Disturbing Gospels,” while the other focuses on the relationship between humor and religion.

The Pope also gave Castro copies of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” and his famous encyclical on environmental issues “Laudato si.”

For his part, the former Cuban president presented the Pope with a copy of “Fidel and Religion,” an interview he gave to Brazilian theologian Frei Betto in 1985. The book’s dedication read: “To Pope Francis, on the occasion of his fraternal visit to Cuba. With the admiration and respect of the Cuban people.”

Fidel Castro, 89 years old, who retired from power in 2006 due to illness, also held a private meeting with Benedict XVI when he visited Cuba in 2012. On that occasion, the former president and several of his relatives travelled to the Apostolic Nunciature in order to see the Pontiff.

Translated by José Badué


“Those Pools Aren’t for the People” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernández

The pool at the Frederick Engels Vocational School. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The pool at the Frederick Engels Vocational School. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernández, Pinar del Río, 13 August 2015 — “New movies, lots of ice cream, and a good pool,” is how a resident of Pinar del Río summarized his wishes for this school vacation. His second wish was granted at the local Coppélia ice cream shop, but his hometown has a sad record otherwise, counting only one open cinema, and no functioning pools.

Pinar del Río’s eleven pools are either dilapidated or are under some sort of renovation keeping them closed to the public. In spite of it being a particularly warm summer, with temperatures exceeding 97ºF, the people of Pinar del Río have to make do with fans in order to cool off a bit. Or they make do like Yoankys and Maykel, who use “a hose in the backyard” when the heat becomes unbearable. They used to able to take dives at the pool of the Pinar del Río Hotel after paying admission in CUC’s, but that option does not even exist anymore.

“This shows a lack of respect,” opined Yoaknys, who added that in the Galiano and Mijares Districts, adjacent to the Pedro Téllez Vocational School’s pool, the discontent is even greater. “People see the infrastructure is there, but we need the will to make it work.” That blue, waterless, and dilapidated rectangle is an eyesore for anyone who takes a peek at the school’s sports facilities. continue reading

Orestes, a longtime neighborhood resident who works on a government pig farm, said he could care less if there is a pool or not, but “the kids are sweltering, and we don’t even have a lagoon with water.” This man, who has always lived in the area, recalled that “the only recreation around here used to be the Vocational School’s pool, but since they didn’t change the water, they had to close it.”

Mariela, a housewife who moved to the neighborhood only two years ago, blamed the empty pool on the drought. “It would be a scandal if we had a pool full of water while we’re having such a hard time filling our water tanks.” Pinar del Río Province is facing the lowest precipitation in half a century. Its reservoirs are at a little more than 30% of total capacity, and seven are at critically low levels. Mariela added: “We can’t waste water for recreation when we barely have enough to wash dishes or bathe.”

Jorge, the custodian in charge of the Vocational School’s grounds said that (the Ministry of) Public Health ordered the pool closed because it was a mosquito breeding ground.” Together with the breakdown of pumping and water treatment systems, chlorine shortages are one of the causes that most often works against the safety of pool water throughout Cuba.

Bottom of the pool at the Ormani Arenado Sports School in Pinar del Río.
Bottom of the pool at the Ormani Arenado Sports School in Pinar del Río.

“This had turned into a health problem,” explained Mariela, who remembered that several “youngsters got sick from fungus, skin infections, and otitis in that place,” and said she was “relieved they drained the water, because it was a constant source of diseases.”

In her opinion, “people aren’t accustomed to pools. They don’t even shower before getting in, and they urinate or eat while in the water. And that’s not counting all those who in spite of having an infected wounds on their bodies, still dive in.”

However, Antonio Vázquez, a staffer of the city’s Ministry of Education, refused to accept that closing the pools is the way to solve health problems. “We want our children to learn how to swim, to play sports, and to spend their free time on wholesome recreation…but we have ten pools closed in this city!” he exclaimed in frustration.

Mr. Vázquez explained that “pools in the city of Pinar del Río fall under the jurisdiction of several government entities.” According to this government employee, the Vocational School’s pool is run by the Education Ministry, “but it was ordered closed by Public Health, because with the drought, they weren’t able to change the water, and after a month, it was polluted.”

A waiter at the Pinar del Río Hotel explained to 14ymedio that the closure of their pool was due to remodeling, “but it’s going to end up looking very nice. We’re opening it on August 13th *, with a ten CUC admission, of which eight covers food and drinks.” The hotel employee stressed “they had to close it, because it was in a very bad sate, but now it’s going to be perfect. We felt bad for the public, but it had to be closed.”

Like a vanquished giant, the Olympic-size pool at the Nancy Uranga Physical Education College, is deserted and waterless. “We had to empty it,” recalled the college’s custodian “because youngsters would show up with alcohol and knives, and then things would get bad. The grounds are under police surveillance, but the problem did not go away.” The custodian then explained, “The problem with the diving pool is another story. That one is contaminated.” Its green water covered with a layer of litter confirmed the custodian’s words.

Far from there, weeds cover the entrance path to the Frederick Engels Vocational School, inaugurated by Fidel Castro. It has been almost five years since any students have been able to submerge themselves in its two pools, which were once its source of pride. “No one gives a hoot about this. They were ruined because of the lack of upkeep,” complained an employee. The pool at the Medical Sciences Department is in a similar state.

The Ormani Arenado Sports School has become the last hope for the desperate swimmer. However, two of the three pools have not been filled for months, and the Olympic-size pool overflows with a liquid covered by a green film that reeks terribly.

In contrast with these bleak scenarios, the Central Home of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, located on the Central Highway, at the outskirts of the city, showcases a well-maintained pool, but it is reserved for the members of the military. The Ministry of the Interior’s Villa Guamá, located on the 4th kilometer (2.5 mile) mark of the highway to Viñales, is another one of the privileged locales enjoying the relief of a functioning and clean pool.

“But those pools aren’t for the people,” protested a frustrated Yoansky, the young man who tries beating the heat by dousing himself with a hose in his backyard. “It’s as if they didn’t even exist.”

*Translator’s note: August 13 is Fidel Castro’s birthday and the day is often marked by “special” events such as this.

Translated by José Badué

The Race for School Supplies / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

A girl getting her supplies ready for the new school year. (14ymedio)
A girl getting her supplies ready for the new school year. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 12 August 2015 — The long line snakes outside the bookstore under the scorching August sun. Most are women with children. “They’re selling the thick notebooks,” announces an elderly lady to someone asking who is last on line*. The race is on to buy school supplies, such as backpacks and lunchboxes. However, some have better starts than others.

Daniela visited the aquarium, went to the beach, and ran around in the park near her house during her summer vacation. But now, as the days of rest are running out, her mother has embarked on a marathon run from store to store trying to find everything from colored pencils to a water bottle. Daniela wants to start the first day of school with “nice and pretty things,” which will hardly be cheap.

With 6,827 elementary and 1,766 middle schools throughout the country, the authorities of the Cuban Ministry of Education are giving assurances that school supplies will be guaranteed for the more than 1,500,000 students starting the 2015-2016 school year. Still, students and parents complain about the poor quality of the supplies, and the limited quantities distributed. continue reading

“My daughter can’t use an eraser because it leaves a hole in the paper,” said a mother about the notebooks handed out in schools. The woman was waiting to shop outside of La Época department store in Central Havana. Illegal vendors in the vicinity of department stores sell notebooks with colorful covers, and ruled paper for one CUC.

In homes with school age children, the same scenario is being repeated over and over again as kids line up their precious pencils, protractors, and erasers on their beds or on the dinner table. Some families have already found backpacks, the source of many a headache given the high prices and flimsiness of those for sale in the government’s network of retail stores.

Daniela is lucky. She has an aunt living in Miami who bought her a backpack online. Her family received a phone call from the Plaza de Carlos III shopping center informing them there was a school supply purchase waiting for them there. The émigré relative also threw in a box of colored pencils. In Cuba, Daniela’s mother – an engineer who graduated a decade ago – would have had to work three days to pay for those pencils.

However, the online purchase hasn’t solved all the problems. Daniela’s family will spend a whole week searching for all the supplies she still needs. Her grandmother, who owns a car, will be going to “La Cuevita,”* a popular yet illegal market where small and medium size school uniforms are sold, although these same sizes are in short supply at government-run stores. Daniel’s father’s mission is to find her shoes, while her mother is in charge of finding a pencil sharpener and a compass for geometry class.

School uniforms (14ymedio)
School uniforms (Luz Escobar)


Since shortages have worsened in the last few weeks, Daniela’s family’s task will take a few days. “Every store is empty,” protested a grandmother of twins who will be starting first grade in September as she visited La Moderna Poesía bookstore. “An eraser here costs me at least 50 cents in CUC, but that’s my whole pension for one day,” she added.

Fashion also affects the predilection for specific school supplies. “My daughter wants a Monster High backpack,” explains a desperate mother who last Tuesday visited all the shops on Monte Street. The Monster High fashion doll and video franchise has become all the rage among Cuban children, putting their parents into a bind, pressured to do the impossible to get a hold of one of the brand’s items.

The same scenario – but with even more challenges – plays out in cities and small towns outside Havana Province. Long lines to buy school uniforms have become part of the urban landscape every month of August in the city of Pinar del Río. Still, unauthorized vendors manage to outwit the police by selling pencils, quality notebooks, and book covers made from recycled x-ray film.

The Ministry of Education turns a blind eye to all of this. A couple of weeks ago, Marisol Bravo Salvador, the Ministry’s director for the Vueltabajo Region of Pinar del Río Province affirmed that her district “has all the necessary resources, like notebooks, pencils, and teaching modules that guarantee a year for optimal learning.”

The race to get all necessary school supplies is in full swing, but surely many children will enjoy nothing new when the schools year begins. These kids will probably become the targets of the snooty stares of their classmates, who – right in front of their eyes – will be showing off their lunch boxes that keep soda cold until afternoon recess, as well as their strawberry-scented erasers.

When the first morning school bell rings in September, there will be children lining up for class with eye-catching backpacks sporting smiling Disney princesses, carrying notebooks purchased by émigré relatives. Others will recycle part of what they used last school year, or they will just wait for whatever the teacher gives out.

Translator’s Notes:
* Cubans join a line by asking, “who’s last,” and then they are free to cluster, wander around, leave and come back etc., without losing their place in line.
**Literally “The Little Cave.” In popular Cuban parlance the term is applied to discrete locales of unlawful activity, much like U.S. Prohibition-era speakeasies.

Translated by José Badué

US Invites Cuban Opponents To An Event At The Official Residence, But Not To The Embassy / 14ymedio

The raising of the flag is scheduled for Friday morning, August 14th. (14ymedio)
The raising of the flag is scheduled for Friday morning, August 14th. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 12 August 2015 — The U.S. embassy in Havana will not be inviting the opposition to its official inauguration, which will take place this coming Friday, August 14th, in Havana, with the attendance of John Kerry. Nevertheless, another flag raising ceremony has been planned at the ambassador’s residence where there will be a meeting between the Secretary of State and a group of dissidents, as has been confirmed by 14ymedio. Among the activists who received an official invitation from Secretary of State John Kerry are Antonio González Rodiles, Martha Beatriz Roque, Elizardo Sánchez, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Dagoberto Valdés and Héctor Maseda, among others.

The flag-raising ceremony and the reception at the residence of Jeffry DeLaurentis will begin at 4:15 PM and the guests are expected to arrive before 3:45 “for security reasons.”

Washington hopes this will resolve the dilemma created by the official visit of John Kerry to Havana, the first by a secretary of state in seventy years. continue reading

The news comes one day after Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), wrote Mr. Kerry asking him to “meet with the courageous leaders who are fighting to bring freedom to Cuba and invite them to the ceremony you will be presiding over at the new American embassy.” The Cuban-American senator added: “They [the dissidents], among many others, and not the Castro family, are the legitimate representatives of the Cuban people.”

Republicans are pressuring the White House to express a gesture of encouragement towards the opposition. Yet the Obama administration finds itself in a predicament, since the Cuban government might interpret its Washington’s approach to the opposition as an offense at a moment when both countries are trying to normalize relations, since it considers dissidents to be “mercenaries.” On the other hand, excluding the opposition might result in criticism from those sectors that would accuse the U.S. of being lukewarm when it comes to defending human rights.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said: “The United States will continue to advocate for the rights to peaceful assembly, association and freedom of expression and religion, and we’re going to continue to voice our support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba.” Apart from the flag-raising ceremonies, Kerry will meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, and they may also hold a joint press conference. Kerry also plans on taking a short stroll through the capital, according to the authorities.

Translated by José Badué

A Seagull with Lots of Ambitions / 14ymedio

“Gómez’s City Block” (“La Manzana de Gómez”) will house a luxury five star hotel. (CC)
“Gómez’s City Block” (“La Manzana de Gómez”) will house a luxury five star hotel. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 8 August 2015 — The government corporation Gaviota (Spanish for “Seagull”), the leader in tourism to Cuba, announced on August 6th that it will double the number of guest rooms it offers throughout the island from 24,000 to 50,000 by the year 2020. Since its creation 27 years ago, Gaviota has been linked to the Cuban Armed Forces, and many of its executives are retired high-ranking military officials.

One of Gaviota’s most important projects is next year’s opening of a five-star hotel inside of what is known as La Manzana de Gómez (“Gómez’s City Block”), opposite Havana’s Central Park. The Swiss hotel chain Kempinski, one of the oldest in Europe, will be in charge of managing its 246 guest rooms. continue reading

During its pre-revolutionary splendor, La Manzana de Gómez was one of the most important shopping centers of the capital, but it began quickly deteriorating by the end of the 1960’s, eventually ending up in ruins. A couple of years ago, everything housed there –including a school­– was relocated elsewhere. A chain link fence now encircles the building where a multitude of laborers work virtually round the clock constructing the new facilities.

Gaviota’s other plans include the 2017 reopening of the Packard Hotel with 300 guest rooms, and the Prado y Malecón Hotel in 2018 with 200 rooms. There has also been talk of remodeling the Regis, El Gran, and the Metropolitano Hotels, all located in the capital’s historic center.

Gaviota’s other projects include hotel development on Varadero Beach, Holguín Province, and the archipelago off the northern coast of Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, and Camagüey Provinces. Still, the main objective will be to position Havana as one of the main destinations for urban sightseeing in the Caribbean.

More than two million foreign tourists have travelled to Cuba during the first half of 2015. American tourists are the group whose presence has increased the most. So far this year, 90,000 of them entered Cuba, 54% more than during the same period in 2014.

Translated by José Badué

Cayo Granma’s Golden Dreams / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The economy of Cayo Granma has been in decline for many years. The only way to secure a job is by crossing the channel separating it from Santiago de Cuba.
The economy of Cayo Granma has been in decline for many years. The only way to secure a job is by crossing the channel separating it from Santiago de Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Santiago de Cuba, 8 August 2015 — “If Cuba is the key to the Gulf of Mexico, than this is the key to Santiago de Cuba,” asserts Gaspar, who lives on Cayo Granma, and swears that he has not crossed the narrows separating him from the city in many years. Gaspar thought it “was the end” when hurricane Sandy devastated the area in October 2012. During those early morning hours when waves reached thirty feet, forty homes were destroyed and two hundred experienced major damages. Gale force winds took their heaviest toll on this tiny bit of land, and the storm’s scars are still visible.

A team of students from the Martha Abreu Central University of Las Villas has been rewarded for its rescue plan for Cayo Granma during the London-based i-Rec Conference 2015: International Perspectives on Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. But thousands of miles from England, the residents of the most famous island in Santiago Bay are trying to rebuild their lives three years after what seemed like a meteor impact. continue reading

The team is led by Professor Andrés Olivera Ranero, and includes students Ana Lourdes Barrera Cano, Royer Leno Medina, Elisa Medina Toboso, and Niuris Martín Rosabel, all of who hail from the provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara. With the objective of the revitalization of the community, they presented their four-step plan, and were able to beat out over fifteen other projects competing for the award given in London.

The longboat that arrives once a day at Cayo Granma is noisy and leaves behind an odor of burning oil. Immediately after disembarking one is struck by the natural beauty of the place, and by the precarious life of its inhabitants. Cayo Smith, as Cayo Granma was originally called, is still a humble fishermen’s village, with wooden shacks that gave it its architectural uniqueness, and that used to house families of up to twenty members. The holes the winds left in the roofs and in the walls have been concealed with zinc slabs and pieces of wood collected after the storm.

“There’s not too much to do here,” explains Agustina, who lived through those years when most of the owners of Cayo Granma’s best homes left for exile, and the government turned the dwellings over to very poor people. “It was like a dream come true, but then everything got run down.” This lady confirms what specialists and sociologists have proven through their research: Cayo Granma’s economy is at a standstill, alcoholism rates among the youth are alarming, and unemployment figures are high.

“There’s only one school here that goes up to the sixth grade, and a lot of the adolescents drop out because it’s too hard getting to the other side,” explains Agustina as she points to Santiago de Cuba. Some of the villagers have their own dangerous and fragile rowboats. When they use them, they do so very quietly since most of them are not authorized and therefore are subject to frequent confiscations. When talking abut the unreliable schedule of the only means of transportation connecting them to the city, Agustina complains: “There’re days we’re not sure if the government’s longboat is coming, or at what time.”

The architecture students have proposed a first phase that would guarantee a decent home with a roof for each family living on the key. Only after this is accomplished, the second phase of the project would start with the building of a manufacturing plant and a sawmill in order to create employment in an area with a high percentage of people without ties to the labor force.

The initiative’s third step would focus on urban and economic development. The models shown the judges who gave the award to the proposal show a lovely place, with flowers and abundant gardens, where residents build their own boats and semi-attached homes. “Picturesque, resilient, sustainable, and dignified habitat,” are some of the words used to describe the community that will ensue after the project is executed. The fourth stage would be the consolidation and preservation of what has been accomplished. However reality is far from this panacea.

With strong winds powerfully whipping the shoreline, 72-year old Carlos Cesario passes by with a bag hanging from his shoulder. “Very few homes have been repaired,” he states, while explaining how he shares a dilapidated house with fifteen relatives. This problem is common among the key’s residents, and they stare blankly out towards the horizon without the slightest hope that solutions will come through official channels.

“It’s an awful situation,” protests Moraima Fernández. “My roof caved in, my house fell apart, and I couldn’t find zinc slabs.” Mrs. Fernández points out that the local authorities’ poor handling of the situation has contributed to “after three years, everything still being more or less the same.”

When Cayo Granma’s residents were shown the winning models from the London competition, some could not contain their laughter, while others asked “And when is it supposed to happen?” The project’s timetable and date for the completion of the homes have yet to be determined. There is not even a budget yet to start on the first phase. “I’m sure that they’ll have to wait for some foreign organization to fall in love with the idea, ones that will want to finance it,” reflected Ana Laura, a young lady born on Cayo Granma. Nowadays “I only come here to visit my grandmother, because this place is like death,” she added.

Far from here, on a few restless architects’ drawing boards, rest the plans for Cayo Granma’s future, a faraway, utopian place that the island’s current residents do not even want to think about.

The projected future of Cayo Granma as it appears in one of the award-winning models presented in London.
The projected future of Cayo Granma as it appears in one of the award-winning models presented in London.

Translated by José Badué

The Government We Need / 14ymedio, Regina Coyula

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Regina Coyula, Havana. 2 August 2015 — In light of the government’s refusal to dialog with the nonviolent opposition, the latter should start a discussion within itself, an exercise unfamiliar to Cubans. Instead, we are accustomed to extremes ranging from the consistent unanimity of our parliamentary sessions, to the commotion of a “disqualifying”* act of repudiation.

Change – gradual or drastic – is the possibility of change in the roles of power and the government is not interested. But society needs all its actors, whether they are dissidents or government supporters. One must be blind not to realize that Cuba is on the road to change. So for starters, our government should uphold its own laws that it disobeys time and time again when they are not in keeping with its interests. This would be just a beginning. However, as we already know, the authorities are not interested in what would follow. The experiences of Eastern Europe are still fresh in their minds. continue reading

The Cuban government behaves ­– if not by decree or law, certainly in deed – as if it rules by divine right. It bases its authority on a form of anti-imperialism that on many occasions turns into anti-Americanism. Despite all the anti-imperialist warmongering and siege mentality indoctrination we have been subjected to for more than half a century, it was no match for the Cuban people’s jubilation upon the announcement of the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

To speak of civil society in Cuba leads almost obligatorily to the dissidence, civic institutions that in other countries would be self-governing are subordinated to the state. According to this type of Socialism “we all support,” the only civic institutions are those recognized — and for the most part funded — by the government. Non-governmental organizations, especially those espousing independent political viewpoints, do not count.

Whether it is dissidents, government backers voicing criticisms, advocates for an independent civil society, or the “trusted opposition,” these groups highlight the existence of political pluralism in a country that is intended as a monolithic unit. Every individual is diverse and complex and if people don’t unite on issues far more simple than politics, it cannot be expected that a single political party could represent the interests of all its citizens over a timespan as long as five decades.

Cuba’s so-called “trusted opposition” is part of a larger ensemble that includes the genuine opposition. Clearly some of the more active and interesting members of this “trusted opposition” voice a type of radical nationalism more akin to the 19th century, not to this era in which national frontiers are blurred, among other reasons because of the emergence of globalization and a growing international consensus on protecting the environment, the eradication of poverty, and the marginalization of whole groups of people.

I do not support Cuba’s annexation to the United States, but if an annexationist** movement were to exist on the island, the level of support that it or any other political movement enjoys should be decided at the ballot box. Only the use of violence and discrimination in all its forms must be excluded from the national scene. Despite all the sloganeering to the contrary, Cuba is indeed moving towards a pluralistic future and it is not healthy if the government or the opposition flout the law.

By airing grievances before the authorities or the public, Cuban citizens are actually voicing their hopelessness in regards to what they expect from their government, which is the embodiment of the political system itself. Therefore it is absurd to think that Cubans will not switch ideologies, or “come out of the ideological closet” once we enjoy freedom and access to information. We will represent a wide spectrum – ranging from Christian democracy to the aforementioned annexationist movement – while never feeling any less patriotic than the most devoted member of the Communist Party.

It will be very difficult to ask for decency from an endogamous group that many years ago turned itself into the government and whose players defend their power at all costs. In their long manipulation of both information and nationalistic sentiments, we have inverted the concept of the presidency and the president. Therefore, instead of wasting time debating the limits of the “trusted opposition,” and consequently of the “other opposition” as well, we should begin to use the term “trusted government” to define what Cubans really need, a government we can trust based on the rule of law.

Translator’s Notes:
* The regime commonly uses the term “disqualified” towards its opponents, as a way of completely dismissing them and their opinions, a strong assertion that they do not even have the right to speak. For example, in this post Yoani Sanchez is told: “You have transgressed all the limits… This totally disqualifies you for dialog with Cuban authorities.”
** Historians estimate that during the last half of the 19th century, Cuba’s political class was divided into three equal parts: one third strived for more autonomy for the island while securing its place as an overseas province of Spain, another third fought for Cuba’s absolute independence, and the last third wanted to apply for U.S. statehood. The latter were known as “annexationists.” The current Cuban regime often dismisses dissidents with this term, which it considers pejorative.

Translated by JoséBadué

Without Its Market Cuatro Caminos Seems Lost / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Despite the “La Plaza”’s structural decline, its bustle and commotion where constants until it was closed in February 2014.
Despite the “La Plaza”’s structural decline, its bustle and commotion where constants until it was closed in February 2014.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 30 July 2015 — Every city has its nerve centers, and one of Havana’s is where Monte, Cristina, Arroyo, and Matadero Streets intersect, and where the “Mercado Único” (“The Only Market”), also known as “Cuatro Caminos” (“Four Roads”), is located. This nearly one hundred year-old colossus has been closed since February 2014, in the hope that a renovation project could help it regain some of its former splendor. Nevertheless, the slow pace threatens to weaken the economy of the surrounding community even more than it already is.

If the question was where to find sapodilla, eggfruit, or delicious soursop, the answer was – until a little more then a year and a half ago – “go to ‘La Plaza,’” or “The Square.” Every inhabitant of Havana knew that “going to ‘La Plaza’” meant going to the former “Mercado General de Abasto y Consumo” (“The General Dry Goods and Provisions Market”), opened to the pubic in 1920 by its original owner, businessman and politician Alfredo Hornedo Suárez. continue reading

Havana’s City Hall played favorites with Mr. Hornedo Suárez’s market by forbidding any similar establishment within a 1.5-mile radius, hence “Mercado Único,” or “The Only Market”. This advantage allowed Cuatro Caminos to reign supreme for almost half a century until 1959 when it was turned into a warehouse. During the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, the top floor was closed, allegedly because it was too run-down.

In the middle of the 1980’s, during the “rectification of errors and negative tendencies” campaign, Cuatro Caminos ­– with a horn of plenty affixed to its façade – became a battlefield between peasants who did not work for the state and the government. Now the market displays the scars of the economic ups and downs the country has endured in the last fifty years, as well as the authorities’ hostility toward independent distributors and merchants.

Nonetheless, the importance of this yellow and red behemoth not only rested on the assortment of fruits and vegetables available there, which were far better than at any other Havana market. Cuatro Caminos was the epicenter for the sale of herbs, live animals, and other essential items for Santería rituals. From several living rooms in homes in the immediate area some people still try selling husks, necklaces, clothing for statues of the saints, flowers, candles, basil, hens, and pigeons. But it is just not the same.

On July 28th, 72-year-old Israel was looking for the clay pots he still needed for his niece’s Santería initiation ceremony the following weekend. “The list of what I want is very long. You used go to Cuatro Caminos and find everything you needed,” he explained. For the moment, customers have to visit several of Havana’s shopping areas to find all the articles required for Santería rituals. One of these locales is the market on Egido Street, but which is too small to accommodate all of Cuatro Caminos’ merchants.

Water from recent rainstorms seeps in through ceiling cracks at Cuatro Caminos.
Water from recent rainstorms seeps in through ceiling cracks at Cuatro Caminos.

Just by crossing Cuatro Camino’s entrance it is quite evident that the restoration work is not going anywhere. On July 27th, a couple of men were straightening a few steel rods, while pedestrians who passed by tried sidestepping the dirty water, dust, and urine that collects behind the columns. No one has an expected date or timetable for the renovation’s completion.

The upper floor has been closed for decades now. Sunlight pierces the holes in the roof, and is then filtered through skylights, some of which are missing glass. The only thing left of the basement is a crater-like hole where a few stray dogs have found refuge. All of the Cuatro Caminos’ 108,000 square feet seem to be screaming out for the restoration to be completed as quickly as possible, but the authorities are taking their time.

Now water from the rainstorms of the past few weeks has collected inside the market, having flowed downward to this low-lying area where Central Havana, Old Havana and Cerro Districts converge. Add to this cracked columns, a roof that is barely holding up, and a stench coming from stalls­ – where vendors once hawked tamarinds and oranges ­– that is akin to being punched in the face. The decline of this emblematic marketplace has also dragged down many adjacent businesses with it.

“The community depends on this market working right,” explained an elderly man selling disposables razors and small pictures of saints at one of the markets’ exterior walls. Fortunetellers, plumbers, pedicab drivers, sellers of peanuts in paper cones, people who offer to watch one’s car for a fee – who now are so bored they just fall asleep – and even prostitutes who offer their services to Cubans, are all counting the days until the reopening of “La Plaza,” their “Plaza.”

“I guess what we need is a decision from the top,” said Gretel, a thirty-something who used to rent out rooms in her house to truckers from other provinces who supplied merchandise to the Cuatro Caminos. “My business has collapsed,” she added. Area residents now rarely walk down those same streets that used to teem with handcarts, people carrying bags, and lots of yelling. Under the shade of the La Plaza de Cuatro Caminos a man hawked copies of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, but there are no takers. Sitting against the wall, bored and weary, he fanned himself with a copy. The headline read: “The People’s Victory!”

Translated by José Badu´